Anglo Saxon Lyre
Full documentation can be found here.
Making an Anglo-Saxon Lyre
I've had a fascination with stringed instruments since picking up a guitar in my teenage years. Since then I've gone on to pick up banjo and ukulele. When I saw a friend, Lord Matthaeus DePuy, walk into practice strumming a lyre, I immediately asked him about it. He had made it himself and graciously offered to show me how to do the same in his workshop.
He based his design off of the pattern available in Cariadoc's Miscellany, 10th edition, which discusses the creation of both a Sutton Hoo based and a Trossingen based lyre design. For my lyre, I chose to go for the Trossingen design, with a bloodwood soundboard, horn tailpiece, and nylgut strings.
A print out of the plans overlaid on the cut out oak body of the lyre.
33 x 9" oak board, 1" thick
18 x 7" soundboard piece, 1/8 inch thick
2 x 3" piece of horn
Flurocarbon or nylgut strings
The first step was to print the plans for the lyre and create a to-scale template. I then cut the body of the lyre out of my oak board using a bandsaw. I marked the section to hollow for the body of the lyre, and then used a drill press to make several holes. I inserted the router bit, and used a router to remove the central wood, hollowing out the body of the lyre. (See image to the right.) I also traced out the shape of the crossbar or headstock on my oak board, and cut it out using a band saw.
Next I traced out the body shape of the lyre onto the thin piece of bloodwood to form the soundboard. This was also cut, using both a bandsaw as well as a jeweler's saw for the more delicate cuts. Care was taken to not crack or split the thin wood. As bloodwood dust can be toxic, respiratory masks were also worn while working or sanding the bloodwood.
I sanded the pieces thus far to 300 grit before assembly. I also drew a rune for music/song in the instrument's interior and signed my name. I used a drill press to drill holes in the headstock oak piece, and then inserted and screwed in the zither pins, which will hold the strings. I used hand files to lower the body walls, in order to make the installed soundboard flush with the head of the lyre. Then I began assembling the lyre, using generous amounts of wood glue on the thin soundboard walls, using wood glue to fill any gaps, and holding both the soundboard as well as the headstock piece in place using clamps. I left the piece to set for 48 hours; more than overkill.
Hand sanding is a part of woodworking where you get out what you put in; taking time to thoroughly sand with increasing grit paper will result in a better final product.
I based my rough positioning of the bridge and tailpiece based off of the plans. Final adjustment was done manually to ensure the tailpiece was securely fastened to the body of the instrument using fishing line, and I even sanded a small grove into the "nub" at the end of the instrument to ensure the tailpiece is more secure.
A little messy at first with the router, but, the interior will be covered by the soundboard.
I removed my clamps, and then set to work the long process of sanding. Beginning as always with the lowest grit, I first did a general pass over the instrument with an orbital sander, being cautious with my pressure on the soundboard. I then used sandpaper, working from 150 to 800 grit, hand sanding the entire instrument until I felt satisfied with the fit and finish of the wood. I applied two coats of danish oil to the wood afterwards to seal, which also helped to add a nice finish.
Using a small piece of horn, I traced out the shape of the tailpiece and cut it out using a jeweler's saw. If you've never worked with horn before, there is a smell almost of burning hair when sawing or sanding the material. This is natural, as horn is made of the same material (keratin) but can be strange at first. I hand sanded the tail piece until glassy and smooth. Very carefully, and with a small drill bit, I marked and drilled five holes to tie my strings onto the rounded top of the horn piece. I also drilled two holes to tie the tailpiece to the body of the instrument.
The only piece I didn't make myself for this instrument was the bridge, made of walnut, which was kindly made by my friend Lord Matthaeus of the Shire of Roxbury Mill. The bridge is held in place only by the tension of the strings, so stringing the lyre initially was a little tricky and required some trial and error. Eventually, I had the tailpiece secured to the body, and strings tied through the tailpiece. I then inserted the other end of the strings into the zither pins, tied, and began adjusting the tension until I had a consistent tension across all strings, the bridge in position, and the tailpiece held in place. I then tuned the instrument to a pentatonic C scale, which allows for easy improvisation and harmony of all strings.
The final product can be seen to the right. I am pleased with the end result, although as with all projects I can already see areas to improve. I find natural materials relaxing to work with and expanded my novice woodworking skillset, as well as netted a new instrument I made myself to play around the campfire.
Since making this instrument, I have picked up additional woodworking skills through beginning to carve spoons and hand whittle green wood. This includes using knives, chisels, hook knives, and scorps to carve. In the course of my research I found bowl-shaped lyres that I would like to attempt to recreate using my newly-acquired spoon-carving skills, allowing for an even more intimate woodworking project that would be more closely utilizing period techniques of hand carving, and avoid the use of mechanized tools.
A Brief History of the Lyre:
The lyre as a concept is utterly simple: a hollow box over which strings are plucked. Fittingly, the instrument has deep roots in human history, dating back to ancient Greece. The body of the lyre would be composed of wood or other natural materials such as tortoise shells, with strings made of sinew or gut. Some depictions show musicians using a plectrum to strike the strings, while most use the fingers to pluck strings, either individually or in combination. The proliferation of the lyre from the Mediterranean across mainland Europe was likely accomplished by a vast combination of Roman-Gaul interactions, but the exact history is unknown. A 1st century stone bust depicting a man holding a lyre, found in Brittany in 2019, indicates that the lyre had made its way across the continent relatively early.
The lyre appears to have been adopted and adapted by many cultures, notably for this project Anglo-Saxons of England. Extant examples, proving the best evidence we have for exact production and adornment, have been found in archaeological sites with one of the earliest dating to the 5th century in Abingdon, England. The Trossingen, Germany grave site provided a nearly-intact lyre dating to the 6th century, demonstrating widespread use in Europe. Perhaps the most famous example of the lyre was found at the Sutton Hoo, England site, dating to the 7th century. The fact that lyres were found among the treasured possessions of the dead in graves helps to demonstrate their importance to the deceased as well as the living. Individual instrument finds have exhibited wear patterns, helping to inform how the lyre was played, and a surprising array of ornamentation on the instruments. Several significant finds contain gold or precious metals, or decorative motifs featuring animals or warriors.
Depictions of the instrument can be found within the texts of the period, including a gorgeous 8th century illuminated psalter with an insular hand, depicting King David playing the lyre. The classic work Beowulf mentions the lyre as an instrument multiple times in the text. More specifically to Scandanavia, in Gotland, Sweden, a rock carving relief was found depicting a lyre that dates to the 6th century. The lyre was well known as an instrument and a poet's companion.
Bommes' illustration depicting the geographic distribution of lyre finds.
Below: Comparison image of lyre and harp
Gotland, Sweden rock relief of a lyre; faint, but dates to the 6th century and shows use of the lyre in Scandinavia.
A Harp or a Lyre?
As an instrument, the lyre bears many resemblances to a harp, and indeed early lyres may have more in common with harps than they differ. Both have a soundbox or resonator and open strings; in fact, in period there was much less distinction between the two instruments. The following is a passage from J. Hillberg's Early Lyres in Context thesis:
"There seems to be some general confusion about the definitions and terms used for the instrument that is today called lyre. In Sohlmans musiklexikon we can read today’s definition (as translated by the author): Lyre is used today as an organological term for a stringed instrument with a box- or bowl-shaped body and two arms extending in the same plane as the sound board, joined at the top with a yoke (…) (Stauder 1977: 396).
A modern harp (Fig. 2) would be defined as follows, according to The New Grove Dictionary of Musical Instruments (resonator = soundbox): Harp: Normally triangular in shape, all harps have three basic structural components: resonator, neck and strings....Frame harps have a forepillar or column which connects the lower end of the resonator to the neck, adding structural support and helping to bear the strain of string tension. Harps without forepillars are ‘open harps’. Only European harps and their descendants are consistently frame harps: most others are open (Griffiths et al. 1984: 131).
Gjermund Kolltveit mentions that the word lyre does in fact not appear in early written texts; instead the word harp is frequently encountered. This contrasts the pictorial evidence: Early depictions show lyres while the harp is only later introduced. This may be due to a different terminology used during the Migration Period and the Viking Age, where harp would indeed designate all stringed instruments (Kolltveit 2000: 23). "
Our modern sensibilities have distinct definitions of different types of instruments, and the exact family lineage they are descended from. It seems that in period these distinctions were less pronounced.
The beauty of the lyre is in its simplicity. No complex chords, and the lack of a fretboard means that the instrument is limited in the sounds it can produce. Instead the vibrations of the strings evoke a primordial calm; soothing tones that one can easily imagine accompanied by a skald or bard's prose. Before beginning this project, I knew of the lyre in limited Anglo-Saxon England contexts; in the process of researching the lyre I discovered a much richer history, dating back to the Greeks, and extending through much of Europe.
I enjoyed the process of creating this lyre and learned many woodworking skills along the way, which I hope will translate well into future projects This project served as a kind of experimental archaeology, in the recreation of material culture of the period from archaeological finds to gain a deeper understanding of what the music and sounds of this fascinating period of history would have been like.
Anglo-Saxon and Early English Psalter: Now First Printed from Manuscripts in the British Museum. London: Nichols and Pickering, 1843.